When Yulisa Amadu Maddy first staged "Big Berrin" in his native Sierra Leone, he was placed in solitary confinement for four months. Washington will have an opportunity to see the U.S. premiere of this African ritual dance drama when it opens Thursday at Howard University's Ira Aldridge Theatre.

"The themes of the play are universal, but the focus is clearly on Africa and the Third World," says Maddy, 38, now living in exile in Nairobi. "What I am trying to show is that people in Africa and the Third World do not realize their dreams. Even when they cooperate with the system, they are realizing other people's dreams. Our children are growing up without dreams because there is no future. In Africa, we fought against colonialism; what next, are we approaching another slavery?"

Maddy says he was detained after the production of the play in Sierra Leone because he attacked his country's leaders, blaming them as well as the West for his nation's ills. While he does not make specific mention to Sierra Leone, there are thinly disguised references to various leaders and political parties. Maddy is critical of the status quo, but says that the play is optimistic -- with four characters representing the new generation of Africans taking their destiny into their own hands and overcoming past constraints.

"Big Berrin" is a combination of music, songs, chant, mime, dance and drama in which the participants go through different rituals in their day and night dreaming. Says Joyce Smith, a member of the play's international cast, "I have found it to be the essence of Africa, a combination of all the arts rolled into one. The play will provide audiences an opportunity to learn something about Africa."